If Zach Braff were from Iowa instead of New Jersey, Devin Davis would have had the hit song on the Hawkeye State soundtrack. The every-instrument-playing Chicago singer-songwriter’s debut, Lonely People of the World, Unite!, is a distinctly Midwestern collection of acoustic-rock anthems and barbecue-stain ballads, a pleasurable — though not groundbreaking — summertime set.
Just as Rhett Miller did on The Instigator in 2003, Davis gains quick empathy with slightly nasal, woe-is-me-I-have-a-cold vocals, but both singers test our cheaply earned support with some gratingly annoying references. The problem with winning favor so quickly is that you can lose it just as fast. For Miller it was the track devoted to Don DeLillo’s Underworld. In Davis’s case it’s the lines “There’s a Starbucks on top of Mt. Everest now/ There’s a plan to land two on the moon.” The Starbucks as multinational bad-boy shtick is about as fresh as an IMF protester’s T-shirt.
That said, Davis does write some spankingly tuneful summer ditties. You’ll try to sing along to “Turtle and the Flightless Bird” — a deliberate ballad that recalls Jeff Mangum — on the first listen, before you realize you don’t know the words. “Cannons at the Courthouse,” with campfire guitars and warm horn atmospherics, is Belle and Sebastian gone to Dubuque. Lonely teenage boys of the world, listen up! Start practicing this tune now and she’ll be yours by the time the corn reaches your knees (just skip the Starbucks/Everest line and repeat the verse about blankets).
Those tracks evolve deftly from the work of other songsters, but Lonely People often has trouble shaking loose the grip of its influences, most of whom did it better. “Sandie” is pretty enough, all plaintive vocals and wistful acoustics, and the Zeppelin traces are probably okay. But didn’t we hear this same chord progression a few years back in Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta”? That song was catchy as hell for about a month, but it’s not asking for a sequel. “Giant Spiders” rollicks right along, grinning with goodwill and eager to please. And it might have, if its chirpy guitar line didn’t so strongly recall half of the Dead’s American Beauty. It’s tough to sell your merely good song when it’s constantly pointing out some truly great ones.